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ROGER JACKSON: Computers... Love Them Or Hate Them

Sounding Off By Roger Jackson
Published April 1998

ROGER JACKSON: Computers... Love Them Or Hate Them

After nearly 30 years working with computers in the fields of recording and broadcasting, Roger Jackson has realised he is suffering from a problem a lot of SOS readers will sympathise with; his love affair with computers is coming to an end. But breaking up, as someone wise once remarked, is hard to do...

Love or hate, computers usually invoke one feeling or the other. I was once suffused with the glow of silicon‑based romance, but these days, I often suspect that I'm about to change sides. To be honest, my problem probably lies with me and my music, rather than computers per se, but as I am a computer‑based musician, this only makes my problem harder to solve.You see, in that short space of time between dinosaurs dying out and the introduction of digital audio, I recorded on everything from a stereo Ferrograph to a 24‑track Studer tape machine. Although the recording quality improved over the years, the techniques remained largely unchanged; punch‑ins were pretty well the only way of editing, unless you had the courage to attack the two inch tape with a razor blade, and musicians were expected to be capable of playing a whole song. In fact, in the early days, the only difference between a studio recording and a live recording was the room in which it took place; everything was miked‑up and mixed straight into stereo. If you were at the cutting edge, you'd record the backing first and then perform the vocals to the stereo playback and mix the result onto another stereo machine. Reverb consisted of a large room with a loudspeaker at one end and a microphone at the other — no, don't laugh, I'm serious, and it's not that long ago, either — and the amount of reverb was adjusted by moving the mic closer to the speaker. OK, I'm laughing as well when I look back on it, but this is all true, and a lot of good recordings were made this way; remember Sgt Pepper was recorded on the then‑recently‑introduced Studer four‑track machines.

At about this time, a typical small computer would occupy a building about the size of a recording studio. The rooms (note the plural) in which it resided would be temperature and humidity‑controlled, and the air would be filtered to remove every trace of dust, which was capable of shutting down the entire machine in an instant. Questions were asked of this electronic God, and sent in the form of postcards with holes punched in them, which, it was claimed, the God would understand. Only the prophets, denoted by their traditional white coats and anti‑static overshoes, would visit the shrine to receive the machine's answers and translate them into the endless print‑out, which the shredder would then devour. Of course, computers never worked in those days, but we all had such fun because no one really expected them to work anyway.

Things stated to go downhill sometime after 1980, when proper computers were invented. For a start, PCs were now supposed to work properly in the home, so people got angry and stressed when they didn't; but the trouble really started when computers first entered the recording studio. At first, I was happy to slave a Commodore 64 to a tape machine, because I could now store all my keyboard parts on the computer rather than using up precious tape tracks on them, as I'd had to do until then; but then things started to go badly wrong. Firstly, the microprocessor killed (or at least seriously injured) the live drummer, and then MIDI allowed me to quantise the life out of the keyboards. Some years on, I can completely massacre all manner of recordings, not just MIDI ones, by playing a few bars of 'live' instruments into my computer and then copying merrily until a song emerges complete, if terminally boring.

I confess to being a bit of a Luddite, in that I firmly believe that a guitarist strumming through a whole song sounds better than a few sampled chords copied in the right order. The subtle variations in the full‑length performance may not be glaringly obvious, but do impart a feeling of life to the music. This is enhanced when several musicians are involved and they can interact, musically, in a way which is ruled out by the 'cut and paste' method of composition (this method also does away with the euphoric period of self‑congratulation at the pub which inevitably follows a good performance). So why do I use computers on so many recordings? After all, nobody is forcing me to use them. To understand this, we have to explore a flaw in my character (and, I believe, that of many other computer‑based composers who may be reading this). This flaw is best illustrated by an anecdote.

Some years ago, I managed to survive without a car for two weeks, between the old one being towed away for scrap and the slightly less old one arriving. The studio I was working in at the time was a 10‑minute walk from home, which was just short enough to be practical and just long enough to produce that self‑righteous feeling that one gets when saving the world from pollution. I even bought an umbrella (great invention — cheap, effective, easy to operate even without the manual, and positively never any system, resource, or extension conflicts). Of course, I resolved to continue walking to work even when the new car arrived, and, for a while, I remained steadfast. A combination of factors started the rot; a late night, followed by an early booking at the studio and a forgotten alarm clock — surely this was a good case for taking the car? The next morning it was raining and windy; not a good day for the umbrella, and the car really needed a run to keep the battery in trim... You begin to get the picture? It only took about another two weeks to get back to being a full‑time motorist. After all, what's so awful about global warming? It'll save going to Spain to get a tan.

And so it is with me and computers. These insidious devices are like those drugs you hear about which are supposed to represent a great leap forward in medical science — until someone finds out that they're addictive and their side‑effects are worse than the disease they were supposed to eradicate. How many times have I resolved to use the computer as a simple recording medium, a replacement for tape, only to find myself hoping to save a few hours by using a composite rhythm track to rescue a guitarist, and ending up using Quantise To MIDI on everything? One day, I'm going to buy another old tape machine and sell all my computers!Except the one I'm using to type this, obviously...

If you'd like to air your views in this column, please send your ideas to: Sounding Off, Sound On Sound, Media House, Trafalgar Way, Bar Hill, Cambridge CB3 8SQ.

Any comments on the contents of previous columns are also welcome, and should be sent to the Editor at the same address.